A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, and while there were great moments in the miniseries, there were some not so great moments, chief of which being Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III.
I recently held a Google Hangout chat with Ramp Your Voice! founder Vilissa Thompson about the miniseries. As you’ll read below, we discuss the problematic portrayal of Richard, including how his outward appearance (due to a kpyhosis) became linked to villainy, and how King Henry’s (Tom Sturridge) exhibition of Highly Sensitive traits go unrecognized or looked down upon by other characters. We also talk about how Sophie Okonedo stole the show.
Vilissa Thompson (VT): Richard III is truly something else. I finished the rewatch of Part 3 today, and I wrote down some of the ableist things he said about himself, & what others said/referred to him as.
Monique Jones (MJ): Where do you want to start? I suppose we could start with his big speech at the end of Part 2. His first monologue was the beginning of the end for me.
VT: It was. To hear him call himself cursed, and describe the occurrences of his birth was troubling for me.
MJ: I found it fascinating in a macabre way how the same ableist sentiments he said about himself—about how no one loved him because of his appearance is why he’s evil, for instance—are the same tropes repeated today. I don’t know why I thought things would have been different back in the day, but I was shocked at how 21st century Richard’s speech still sounded, esp. when you compare it to movies like Split and Don’t Breathe.
VT: The ableism didn’t surprise me, but the fact that he became the evil he was seen as was like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And his fascination to acquire the crown was his means of obtaining “heaven,” which meant that people had to respect him, and he goes beyond the disdain reputation he has and internalized. The ableism of viewing oneself and disabled body as curses/inconveniences are real. That kind of internalization is so common in our community, and even harder to unlearn. It makes you wonder how many times Richard heard about the circumstances of his birth, and how that transformed him into the “monster” he was, in both body and brutality of violence.
MJ: Yeah. I did feel sympathy for him because his internal dialogue seemed like something that was internalized from what he’s heard from everyone else. He was actually a sad, broken soul who just decided to become what he felt everyone else viewed him as. His ambition is understandable—he wants the respect he’s never gotten from people, including his family–but I just wish there was 1) a character who actually wanted to get to know him 2) if Shakespeare had delved more into Richard’s character with more sympathy. What I hated was that there was no serious investigation into Richard as a person. He was just a plot device.
VT: I agree with you. I think the myths/superstitions surrounding the disabled prevented that closeness to occur. I think having a genuine and meaningful human relationship, even if platonic, would’ve changed things tremendously for him. He was. He was the misshapen being who was blood and power thirsty. There was no depth to his character besides what he desired.
MJ: I don’t know how you feel about Tyler Perry, but to me, Shakespeare is the Tyler Perry of the 1600s. He’s almost always comically broad with his characterizations. Benedict Cumberbatch’s broad acting didn’t help matters.
VT: I can see that comparison. The depiction does nothing to expand understanding of how complicated people are, or dispel stereotypes about people who are underrepresented on the stage (or big or small screen, in Perry’s art).
And the cripping up of the role by allowing Benedict to play Richard definitely doesn’t help at all.
MJ: Yeah. That reminds me: I really didn’t like how in an early part in Part 3 portrayed Richard as body horror. Like, how the camera was revolving around his naked torso in near darkness. Didn’t like that at all.
VT: That was a gross display of his body. That scene was solely to shock at his form; to pair with how you feel about his schemes for power. That scene was hard to look at – it made the disabled body look grotesque, when it’s not.
There is nothing sensational or horrifying about the disabled body.
MJ: Right. I was really turned off by the whole thing; I wish the director hadn’t gone that route. But the whole thing made me feel more sympathy for Richard; that’s the gaze the world has probably had on him his whole life.
VT: It does make you sympathize with him. I did feel for him; you can tell he hated himself and how that kind of hate manifested to hating people who had what he wanted – power, respect, love, a family – things that seemed unattainable to him.
MJ: Yep. What was the nail in the coffin for me was when everyone started calling him “The Dog.” It was much more about his appearance than his actual evil deeds as to why they were calling him that, and at that point, I was just like, “OKAY, SHOW, I GET IT.”
VT: They also called him a bunchbacked toad, a beast – all of these names stripped him of his mere humanness. The dehumanization of Richard with the name-calling was more disturbing than his actual plots.
All of the names we didn’t need to see how they saw him as a “thing” and not as a person.
MJ: Yep. What’s so aggravating is that everyone in the entire story are awful people (save for the kids), but he’s the only one put on a sub-human level. If he didn’t have his condition, he’d be accepted just like everyone else, despite the fact that he’s a killer. Case in point is how Margaret becomes allies with the new queen and the Queen Mother, even though Margaret killed the Queen Mother’s son and husband. But the past gripes go out the window just to get rid of “The Dog.”
VT: I agree. Focusing on Richard’s disability allowed them to separate their evil actions & doings from his – he’s evil because his body is deformed, & I’m better than him… though I’m not. The hypocrisy of all the characters was stark.
Honestly, that mentality about thinking you’re better than a disabled person, regardless of whether they’re a good person or not, is real. The “I may be this, but at least I’m not crippled/disfigured” thinking is common.
I think that Shakespeare perfectly illustrated ableism before the term existed.
MJ: Yep. I know we talked a little bit about Cumberbatch’s acting, but what did you think of his performance overall? I was a little let down, honestly. He’s much better in “Sherlock.”
VT: I wasn’t impressed at all. I think he was as evil in the role as he needed to be, but the cripping up factor made it more offensive and underwhelming for me. The fact that there is no true substance for Richard, & all you feel is pity/sympathy for him instead, makes the character very bad for disability representation. I’m not against disabled characters being evil or vicious, but I am against characters not having depth and relying solely on stereotypes/misconceptions about what having a disability is.
MJ: Yeah. The whole “putting on a disability as a costume” was bad, and Cumberbatch’s acting as a whole was Snidely Whiplash. I had expected him to at least add another layer of depth to the character, which is what a lot of actors do when they get 1D characters. But no, not him. He was just evil. The glimmers of another aspect to Richard weren’t explored nearly enough. And again, the “Creature Feature” aspect of the direction was gross.
VT: It was profoundly gross. To see that driven home by almost every character was hard to watch. Shakespeare’s embodied exactly why non-disabled writers/playwrights shouldn’t write disabled actors – their inability to add depth, humanness, and realism are deep. These depictions end up doing more harm to better seeing disabled people as equal and not curses or sub-human.
MJ: Indeed. The fact that this is supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s “greatest plays” makes me even more suspect of Shakespeare’s supposed mastery of the art of writing than I was before. I already side-eyed Shakespeare just because we are always taught literature from a Eurocentric point of view, but now I’m even more secure in my belief that Shakespeare isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. I do like Othello and Hamlet, but that’s about it.
VT: I feel the same. I think if we were to analyze his plays, we’d see a lot of problematic depictions, themes, and lack of masterful writing. Those are the two plays I like as well.
MJ: Is there anything we haven’t covered? I guess I do want to touch on King Henry a little bit; Henry’s arc was a lot more subtle than Richard’s, but it seemed like Henry was Richard’s foil in many ways–in temperament, but also in disability or perceived disability. Henry’s delicate mental state was often showcased as a detriment to his ability to rule, which could be some kind of commentary on mental disability or just a difference in thinking. Like, I read Henry as being Highly Sensitive (like me), which some people might perceive as a type of disability. I don’t think so, but a study is trying to place it on the autism spectrum [a 2011 theory on introversion also links it to the autism spectrum]. In any case, a big deal was made about the fact that he took things to heart more deeply than other people.
VT: Henry’s mental state and the criticism of how sensitive he was stood out to me too. I think his sensitivity made him more human than the rest of the characters – he held up a moral mirror of sorts to the evils they wanted to enact and justify. I think depicting him as weak because of his sensitive nature allowed for ableism to exist regarding his capabilities to lead. I think his attachment to religion compounded the ableism with his sensitive nature. Henry wasn’t perfect, but he did have a heart, moreso than the others.
MJ: Right. And also, women like Joan of Arc, who are in the same mental ballpark as Henry (Joan’s a little extreme, though) were seen as villains because of ableism and just because they were women.
VT: Exactly. Joan represented resistance to male power, & her religiosity was used against her to declare her mental state unstable. Sexism in Shakespeare’s plays are prevalent, and the status of women and those who are considered too strong or weak are well seen.
MJ: Yep. In a way, France comes out looking good because they actually allowed themselves to be led by Joan. But I wonder if that’s also some sly propagandized statement about what England thought about France—as weak-willed, frilly people.
VT: I think that’s an accurate guess. France, like women, got in their way of things, & needed to know their place.
MJ: To go back to Henry a bit, it’s unfortunate that Henry’s mindset is viewed as a detriment, esp. since that Henry’s way of thinking is still ridiculed today—Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are often told by Western societies specifically that they’re too weak, when our way of being is actually hardwired into us–our nervous systems that take in information a completely different way than non-HSPs. To write HSPs off in that way is completely erasing an entire population of people just because they feel things more intently. And often, folks who are sensitive make great leaders, so Henry had all the tools to be a terrific king.
VT: As someone who is sensitive, I think I had more sympathy for Henry than I did for Richard. I know for me, I try to hide how sensitive I can be to matters because of the fear of being misperceived incorrectly. To have the ability to see beyond yourself and to empathize with the world you live in is a powerful ability. My sensitivity makes me more conscious of suffering, pain, and how to support people who need it. I think Henry’s sensitivity was a gift that he wasn’t given the safe space to nurture in his role as King, and was chastised severely.
MJ: Yep. In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. He existed in the wrong time period, to me. I mean, 2017 isn’t that equal for sensitive folks, either, but at least there’s more knowledge about sensitivity out there and more of a community and scientific study.
VT: I agree. Our society still isn’t safe to care for sensitive people, but is way better than the times Henry lived in, for sure. I think the hesitation to value sensitivity rests on the idea that if we’re in touch with our feelings, that relinquishes power and makes us vulnerable. I find that a lot of people who are anti-sensitivity are the main ones not comfortable with expressing themselves and allowing vulnerability to be seen by others.
MJ: Yeah. And in turn, that can make sensitive people internalize anti-vulnerability attitudes since (at least with some of my experiences) you feel like you’re going to get shunned anyway. I guess it goes back to Richard, too–if the world sees you in a certain way, then you’re going to start believing it’s true until someone else tells you otherwise or you yourself start realizing the world is full of BS.
VT: Preach it. I know that the fear of being shunned if I display my sensitivity is something I’m working on (esp when it comes opposite sex interactions). The internalization, whether due to disability, sensitivity, or both, can be detrimental to us in so many ways. Richard represented what that looked like regarding disability, & Henry represented what external forces look like for sensitive individuals.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. I can identify with Henry’s wish to just be left alone and study the Bible; I’ve actually thought “Maybe I should just become a nun” several times. At least my solitude would be seen as a noble thing and not a weird/hermit thing.The world gets too overwhelming sometimes, especially if you’re a sensitive person. But the world doesn’t respect the sensitive person’s boundaries or the fact that they’re just as capable of the loud extrovert.
Not that all extroverts are loud, but you get what I’m saying—it’s those qualities that are lauded more than contemplation.
VT: I agree. I go back and forth with being introverted and extroverted, but I do crave my alone time, especially when I’m feeling down. I need the space to vent feelings/emotions, but working it out in my head alone is how I cope with things. For me, because I’m a social person, it’s sometimes hard to tell people to back off & let me be. Being an only child, I’m used to being alone and it doesn’t bother me. There are times when I need a lot of noise & people, but when I need quiet & solitude, I have to have it or I can’t function.
MJ: I’ve always been introverted, some of it by my environment, but most of it is my personality. I’d rather be alone, writing or drawing, only choosing to be around people when I feel like it. People really drain me a lot. Henry looked pretty weary through most of the show, and I understand why—dealing with the demands of society is tough.
VT: It is. I could relate to that draining feeling he displayed. Though I love people, the older I’ve gotten, the more I can see myself drained. For someone who is a social worker, that’s part of the reason I’m not a traditional one – having to deal with people with such intensity would be too much emotionally (this is why I could never work with kids or the elderly, their needs are so great and I’d fear not saving them all). With Henry, he didn’t have the support he needed to be King effectively to his liking, or to his country. That added extra strain to an already stressful predicament.
MJ: And the one person who was there to help him, who seemed to realize he needed an extra arm, so to speak, to deal with the world was his uncle, who those scheming factions had killed. That left Henry even more defenseless.
VT: Exactly. Who knew that the Hollow Crown would have so many problematic layers?
MJ: Yep. It was even more problematic than I realized at first!
VT: I know!
MJ: I think we’ve about covered everything. Is there anything you think we left out of the conversation?
VT: I think we covered it all.
MJ: The reason it caught my interest was for the actress playing Queen Margaret, a Black woman in that role intrigued me greatly. She played her role well.
VT: I know it may sound scandalous, but I’m sure Somerset was the father of her son.
MJ: I totally think Somerset is the father, too!
VT: I don’t see her willingly engaging with Henry to give him a heir
MJ: Yeah, me neither!
VT: I wished something about the paternity of the son would’ve came up… Henry couldn’t have been that naive.
MJ: Right. There should have been a non-canonical thing thrown in there just to let us know that Henry knew. He had to have known.
VT: I think we got that inkling when Somerset was beheaded that he knew she wouldn’t have grieved for him as she did for Somerset… but that could’ve been easily missed if you weren’t paying attention. But I think not allowing that knowledge to be made public goes back to Henry being perceived as weak and not catching on to things. But Henry had to know, as we both indicated.
MJ: Yeah. I wish that line or Margaret’s reaction to that line were amplified in some way. Something just wasn’t explored like it needed to be. But I do have to say that Sophie Okonedo was the GOAT in that role. She really put her foot in it.
VT: She really did. You loved her, you hated her… perfect portrayal. But I agree—that scene should’ve been explored further, that could’ve given us that hint.
MJ: It seemed like she was the only one who got the right tone for Shakespearean play. She was broad/campy enough without going overboard, and she was just serious enough to make Margaret believable.
VT: And near the end, the haunting of Margaret as the prophetess was perfect.
MJ: Yeah, that was so good. Such a good role. I’d say Hugh Bonneville was great too. He’s always kinda Shakespearean in his acting. He really knows how to chew scenery.
VT: I agree. If it wasn’t for Queen Margaret/Sophie O playing that role, I don’t think the series would’ve held my attention as well as it did.
MJ: Yep. That was the only reason I kept tuning in, to see what she was going to do.
VT: Lol… me too girl. Glad it wasn’t just me!
MJ: Nope, definitely not! I could have just tuned out after the first episode once Hugh Bonneville died. But I remembered Sophie was going to be in all three parts, so I stuck with it.
VT: Thank god for Margaret, the real MVP of the Hollow Crown
MJ: When she killed Plantagenet, she was so amazingly cruel. Loved it.
VT: The villainess we needed. So unapologetic about it, too
MJ: The villainess who would have had all of England on lock if she had a chance to rule.
VT: Oh yes, Queen Margaret would’ve been legendary. Imagine her rule… goodness.
MJ: There needs to be a show like this! Someone needs to make a Queen Margaret show. I’d watch that every day.
MJ: I’ll have to put a pin in that–another idea I need to utilize my screenwriting abilities for.
VT: DO IT!!!! I need this in my life.
MJ: Maybe that’ll be my claim to fame! I’m totally getting some ideas now. WGA, here I come!
VT: Girl, go get that fame, & write!
MJ: YES! Well, with that, I think we’ve covered every inch of The Hollow Crown. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this! It was a lot of fun!
VT: It was! I had a true blast!